The Good Life: A Valediction of Ecopoetry
“The Insect Apocalypse Is Here,” The New York Times declared in November of 2018. “Where Have All the Insects Gone?” the Guardian asked in June of the same year, even though just the previous December it had published the long article, “A different dimension of loss: inside the great insect die-off.” Worldwide reporting on this die-off had begun the year before, instigated by the disturbing results of entomological studies run between 1989 and 2016 in West German nature reserves, where captured insect biomass fell by over 75 percent. A recent study of Puerto Rico’s El Yunque rainforest reports similar findings of reduced insect biomass, while also noting a rise of 3.6 F degrees in the forest’s annual temperature since 1970. Gathering these headlines together in 2019, it’s impossible not to hear eerie echoes of the first chapter of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in September of 1962. “Fable for Tomorrow” imagined for its readers the “strange stillness” that the continued unrestrained use of pesticides like DDT would bring about, the effects of which were already accumulating in ecosystems, traveling up the food chain to still the swimming of fish and silence birdsong across the country. “A grim specter has crept upon us almost unnoticed,” Carson warned; the ominous losses already underway “could easily become a stark reality we all shall know.”
Just one month after Silent Spring’s publication, Monsanto Magazine ran “The Desolate Year,” a pro-pesticide parody of the book’s already famous first chapter. In contrast to Carson, Monsanto insinuated that it was the “unseen, unheard, unbelievably universal” presence of insects that posed the real threat, and asked its readers, “How could the good life depend upon something so trivial as bug spray?” The “good life,” according to Monsanto in 1962, depended on the continued purchase and continual use of their products, and not on the continued living presence of insects. Drawing simultaneously on Cold War paranoia and a newly hyped-up consumer culture, the parody was their attempt to discredit Carson and assuage a buying public newly aware of the dangers lurking in conveniences unleashed by corporations in search of profit. Indeed, other chemical companies launched similar forms of product placement after the publication of Silent Spring, whose author in fact acknowledged the value of pesticides for agriculture and public health and argued not for the wholesale banning of them, but for regulatory measures that would protect humans and nonhumans alike from the unintended consequences of pesticide overuse.
In 2019, we know that the good life—by which I mean all life on earth—depends upon the “unbelievably universal” presence of insects. It depends upon pollinator species like bees, for instance, whose colonies are in collapse from the use of neonicotinoids, among other classes of pesticides. And it also depends upon Monarch butterflies, another pollinator, who are in precipitous decline because of the near-universal use of the Monsanto herbicide Roundup on their migration route across the United States: without the milkweed leaves upon which their caterpillars have evolved a strict dietary dependence, the Monarch cannot survive. But US corporations have been working hard to dispute any direct link between their products and, for instance, colony collapse—current litigation has stalled a proposed US ban on neonicotinoids, which the EU placed under a near-total ban in 2018. In the US, the corporate fight against negative press and government regulation of pesticides can be traced directly back to 1962. After all, in the wake of Silent Spring, chemical companies in the US vigorously refuted Carson’s arguments, only to be checked by a 1963 report from the President’s Science Advisory Committee, whose findings vindicated Carson and argued that “the accretion of residues in the environment can be controlled only by orderly reductions of persistent pesticides.”
While it's clear from current research that the overuse of pesticides is largely to blame for colony collapse disorder, and herbicides for the Monarch population’s massive losses, scientists have linked the rapid simultaneous worldwide disappearance of insects to the larger anthropogenic patterns fueling the Sixth Extinction that’s reducing the biodiversity of all nonhuman life everywhere. In addition to the chemical pollutants that easily pervade the water table and travel up the food chain, habitat loss, invasive species, and especially climate change seem to be driving insect disappearance even in “protected” spaces like the nature reserves of Germany and national forests like El Yunque. In a capitalist culture whose continuation depends upon its never taking real responsibility for or truly meaningful action to mitigate the Sixth Extinction, it can be hard for us to remember what Tamiko Beyer’s subtle, beautiful poem “When All” asks us to remember:
Now the bumblebees and now the white-nosed bats.
All the colors. The disappeared frogs
line up in terrible splendor.
Take water – how it bends
to earth’s curve or spills
across a table and evaporates: disappears!
Or a wheezing boy on his red bicycle,
and a rumble and sprung garbage truck.
I lay my palm out.
All the lines converge.
The poem’s image-network is split: the first six lines are haunted by an implicit human presence that only becomes explicit in the final four. The tercet introduces us to three populations with free-falling numbers: bees (neonicotinoids), bats (the Pseudogymnoascus destructans fungus), and frogs (the Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis fungus). Humans are either directly or indirectly responsible for these die-offs, having intentionally produced this class of pesticides and having accidently introduced both fungi to the Americas, whose bat and frog populations have no native resistance. Beyer’s second stanza juxtaposes the “terrible splendor” of these massive die-offs with the natural patterns of the water cycle, through which water vanishes from the earth’s surface back into the atmosphere. The final two lines of that stanza introduce human figures directly into the poem’s image-network, thus leading us to the poem’s haunting closure. The two images of wheeled transit—bicycle and garbage truck—carry vastly different connotations in terms of their ultimate destinations. But the sobering final two lines remind us that, in terms of the future, all life on earth now travels toward and converges in the fate we like to try to scry in our human palms.
Beyer’s conviction that “All the lines converge” is a belief perhaps unique to what some now call the Anthropocene, the proposed geological epoch in which humankind is the main driving force behind the accumulating changes in the global fossil record. It must be noted, however, that to write “humankind” here is to disguise the fact that just 90 corporations are responsible for over 60 percent of cumulative carbon dioxide and methane emissions since 1850. And part of what makes the current threat of mass extinction different is not just that we know all biota are part of both local and vast biospheric webs of relation that can collapse as quickly as a reef can bleach, but that, in the US at least, we no longer have a federal government willing to check the corporate interests whose profit depends on sundering these webs. Perhaps Americans don’t remember the fact that the public alarm caused by Carson’s independent research on pesticides indirectly influenced the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970; it’s this fact that makes it particularly galling that the current EPA has literally been given over to the industries whose pollution and abuse of natural resources the Agency was established to regulate. What also makes 2019 different is that ever since the publication of Silent Spring and the subsequent galvanization of the contemporary environmental movement, the American public has been relentlessly besieged by strategic corporate-influenced disinformation and miseducation, the apotheosis of which is the manufactured controversy over climate change.
This isn’t another think piece about the October 2018 report issued by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), or the even more recent federal document, the Fourth National Climate Assessment, on whose rigorous and collaboratively researched conclusions the current EPA has already attempted to cast doubt. Though of course the dire numbers and stark predictions of these reports have prompted a renewed flurry of coverage, their conclusions never should have struck anybody as new. They’re perfectly in line with what government officials, scientists, and corporations have known for decades—in fact, they’re the exact conclusions a corporation like Exxon Mobil has allegedly hidden from view, an allegation that’s still being litigated. Recent investigative journalism has proven that corporations—and governmental powers in cahoots with corporate interests—have worked hard, first to disinform, and then to miseducate the public. If climate change data was strategically withheld in earlier decades, it’s now cynically discredited by corrupt government officials calling into question the very scientific methods upon which public health policies and environmental regulations have traditionally been made. Since the 2016 election, the public sphere in the US has witnessed the flagrant replacement of noncontroversial, established, consensus-based facts with bias and uninformed opinion, outright nonsense, and eerily autocratic silence made most potent by the recent suppression of the EPA’s webpages on climate change. Today, it’s clear that there isn’t much difference between government and corporate interests, for whom the good life consists of unfettered access to profit, not all life on earth.
But many citizens know better, precisely because we know firsthand the deep tension between “the good life” offered by capitalism and the goodness of continued life on earth. This tension is precisely what the IPCC and the federal Climate Assessment everywhere acknowledge. And it’s knowledge of this tension that contemporary ecopoetry—like Tamiko Beyer’s debut, We Come Elemental—documents so powerfully. It’s not that poems like hers necessarily relay the scientific facts that climate reports rely on, though they often do. “Don’t think/that because I say this/in a poem,” William Carlos Williams once cautioned, “it can be treated lightly/or that the facts will not uphold it.” But in addition to the facts, what contemporary ecopoetry offers is knowledge that comes from another register of experience: a felt and intimate relationship to place, to nonhuman others, to a world of facts and things. Such relationships are the kinds of nonquantifiable knowledge corporations and governments refuse to value, the kinds of nonmonetizable knowledge their actions actively disavow. In contrast, contemporary ecopoetry attests to the collateral damage inflicted by the rapacious grab of land and natural resources: ravaged ecosystems, injured workers, persistent pollutants, disrupted cultural traditions, and displaced residents. This poetry bears witness to the ways such manmade disasters violently sever treasured, longstanding relations.
I am thinking here of Shale Play, a book-length collaboration between poet Julia Spicher Kasdorf and photographer Steve Rubin. Based on extensive interviews and rooted in research, their book documents Appalachian Pennsylvania’s recent—and divisive—fracking boom, just the latest extractive industry to besiege a part of the state that has already been drilled for oil, mined for coal and zinc (among other resources), and played host to nuclear power, all with often disastrous consequences. Kasdorf’s and Rubin’s collaboration deliberately situates its response to fracking in the rural communities whose lives and livelihoods have been shaped by Appalachia’s labor histories, its ecologies, and its endemic poverty. While the poorly regulated fracking industry has left some residents rich, it has left others ruined by polluted air and water and debilitating illnesses resulting from chronic exposure to toxic chemicals. Fracking companies have fought hard in court against both accountability and transparency, infamously going so far as to issue gag orders on children as part of a hard-won settlement with a family affected by drilling, a ridiculous and unprecedented legal situation poignantly dramatized by Kasdorf’s poem “Sealed Record.” Meanwhile every citizen living within the Marcellus Shale Play has been forced to choose: between money and water, family and neighbor, livelihood and land, the “good life” offered by a destructive industry and far less profitable occupations available in rural Pennsylvania. But “everyone feels the land getting ruined,” one of Kasdorf’s interviewees admits, “and the families too.” Drawing on Kasdorf’s own deep roots in Pennsylvania, Shale Play immerses us in the feeling of having been played by unscrupulous and predatory corporations, failed by state and federal environmental protections, poisoned in your own home, displaced on the land your family’s known for generations, and dispossessed by the promise of a better future that never comes. It’s become a hellish place for some, and Kasdorf’s narrative poems capture that fact with compassion and accuracy. “The founder of Mansfield’s grower’s market wakes/to flames flashing on the bedroom wallpaper,” she writes, “but it’s just her neighbor’s gas well flaring off.”
I’m also thinking here of Milk Black Carbon, by the Inupiaq poet Joan Naviyuk Kane. Her moving lyrics conjure an Alaskan landscape shaped in part by her mother’s memories of the family’s traditional home on Ugiuvak/King’s Island (from which the Bureau of Indian Affairs removed the community in 1959) and the accelerated pace of climate change in the Arctic. Her work—often written in Inupiaq as well as English—communicates the complicated stakes of being rooted in places changed both by settler occupation and global warming. “A useful relationship though not a tight one,/for between us we knew there was something to lose,” she writes in “Iridin,” “Fragrant in June heat & a field of confusion.” While Naviyuk Kane’s dense poems always evoke the emotional feel of such heightened stakes, they also return again and again to the Alaskan landscape itself, to the snow, ice, water, mountains, islands, flora and fauna, and shorelines that inform her tribal and personal identities. “In routes/along the shore forever slipping/under, I am reminded,” writes Naviyuk Kane in “The Straits,” “in the city//one finds it simple to conceive of nothing/but a system, and nothing but a world of men.” Naviyuk Kane’s remarkable music reminds us that even pro-environmental discourses are obligated to a “world of men” that largely centers on and privileges what can be conceived of by settler culture. Her poems offer alternatives to such systems: their alliteration and their prosody return us to the ear and to the tongue; their music moves us by means other than logic and asks us both to suspend the desire for narrative and paraphrase and to “leave aside/interpretation.” Instead of the systems of the settler state, her poems embody endangered somatic knowledge, traditional ways of knowing inextricable from a relationship to a nonhuman world, albeit one that’s been irrevocably changed by the world of men. “Let us return to chase the thoughts the waves erase,” Naviyuk Kane intones in “Peripheral Vision,” “and rake over again in a mind following the heat of its fevers—/the woods gone white. Winter of a prime disturbance.”
And I’m also thinking here of Canadian poet Adam Dickinson’s Anatomic, a book defined by a different kind of “local” consciousness than the ecopoetry I’ve so far examined. While Kasdorf and Rubin’s Shale Play travels the fracked hills and hollows of Appalachian Pennsylvania, and Naviyuk Kane’s Milk Black Carbon traces the changes of northwestern Alaska’s straits and coastlines, Dickinson’s Anatomic plumbs the biochemistry of the poet’s own body. Though the book begins with the poet expecting to undertake a benign conceptual experiment—he gets his blood, urine, and excrement tested for their chemical compositions, and also swabs his body in order to determine his microbial biodiversity—it quickly devolves into body horror as the tests reveal the extent of his own contamination, ultimately pretty ordinary for a white middle-class citizen of the first world. The resulting tightly controlled poems focus on the blur between industrial and bodily systems produced by pollution, recording (among other things) the way some toxins mimic hormones and influence the endocrine system. What’s so moving about the book is that it preserves Dickinson’s panicked reckoning with our culture’s capitalist logic, a social contract that exacts from us an almost compulsory acceptance of the omnipresence of toxins. “You are either for chlorine/or the plague,” he quips in the poem “Agents Orange, Yellow, and Red,” “Right now is the cleanest/we have ever been, and for this/you must love aerial defoliants/or you love communism.” Hijacking the over-simplified binary logic employed by companies like Monsanto who suggest we must love pesticides or we love the famine produced by crop losses, Dickinson dramatizes the catch-22 of the “good life” as defined by corporations: “the companies are counting on us to love that part of ourselves that is them.” And, as Anatomic demonstrates, the part of us that is them is far larger than most of us think: we all carry the chemical signatures of pesticides, herbicides, and plastics, among many other industrial products, in our blood, guts, and fat, a fact that might or might not make us sick in time.
Of course, there are dozens more contemporary poets writing powerful work relevant to our ongoing epoch of “prime disturbance”—C. S. Giscombe, Juliana Spahr, Craig Santos Perez, Brenda Hillman, Camille Dungy, Stephen Collis, Ross Gay, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Tommy Pico, Allison Cobb, Rita Wong, CAConrad, Ed Roberson, and Brenda Iijima, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, and David Baker among them. But the work of all ecopoets attests to the fact that we can’t leave it up to corporate or government powers to define “the good life” for us. Such poetry doesn’t necessarily give us the facts—though it often does—and it doesn’t necessarily offer (as Williams once famously suggested) what keeps us from dying “miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there”—though it might. What such poetry offers is what most citizens already know: the profit of the 90 companies that produce over 60 percent of carbon and methane emissions does not guarantee the good life for us or for the earth. The good life is drinking water clear and untainted by lead or fracking or hog waste or whatever industries surround us. Because they do—wherever we live—surround us. The good life is not having to choose between regular work and continued intimacy with the lands around us and their flora and fauna. The good life is not having to choose between our own health and continued life on this planet. The good life is not having to make impossible choice after impossible choice all our lives, and to care for the land around us as best we can, only for the feds to hand it over to polluters. And despite what Monsanto would have us believe, the good life is also full of insects, destructive though they can be. It is also full of poetry, which, like everything else that threatens the interests of the powers that be, we are told is expendable. Like the insects, it is not. Like them, it has important work to do that too often goes unseen and unheard. Its work is truth. And we will die for lack of what is found there.
Born in Athens, Georgia, Brian Teare grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He earned a BA in English and creative writing from the University of Alabama and an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. His collections of poetry include The Room Where I Was Born (2003), winner of the Brittingham Prize and...